On Pragmatism and Hubris…

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Early in my life, I found myself to be quite a pragmatic person. I looked for the absolutes in life and gravitated towards a “black and white” polarized mindset. Unfortunately, my faith followed suit and I began my ministerial career in the systematic and concrete Southern Baptist Convention. Initially, this mindset offered me a sense of comfort. It introduced me to “cut and dried” answers to some of the questions that plagued me. In the areas that were a bit more “gray,” arguments and theological “gymnastics” explained away incongruencies and ideas of question, playing back to the notion that the faith we exhibited in that denomination was the one correct and true way to connect with God. (I realize now that this was all collective ego and hubris.) By the time I had finished seminary, I had an answer for everything. Theological debate was a particular strength of mine and I took this into my work as a chaplain. I had a keen intellect and a strong ego that was driven by ambition and hubris. Little did I know that my religious certainty was about to hit an enormous proverbial “brick wall.” This brick wall happened when I attended my first death as a chaplain. Fortunately for me, the family was not present at the time because all I could think of was whether or not this person was going to Hell. Were they “saved?” Did they believe in Jesus enough? This was the first time in my life where my theological acumen had been truly tested. It is easy to preach an idea from a pulpit, but when you are faced with the shaking reality of an idea, it is much more difficult to deal with. I felt a major sense of disconnect between my faith and what I was experiencing. Unbeknownst to me, the spiritual distress that I was feeling was a direct result of my thoughts and feelings being in conflict with one another. For several months, I leaned into this using my intellect to try to understand and create theological constructs that could explain away the dissonance between what I thought and what I felt. I learned behavioral science and therapeutic techniques to try to enhance and integrate the foundering belief that I was holding onto so tightly. In the end, I nearly burned out in my career and found myself begrudgingly having to admit that I could not answer every question and tie it up with a nice succinct bow. It was in my clinical training that I began to ask the hard questions of my faith. Up until this point, the Bible had been my primary source and the interaction was one way. In my clinical training and personal reflection, I stepped out and began to question what I had been taught and what I believed. Being a reductionist by nature, I eventually asked so many questions of myself and of God that I reached the point of questioning everything that I had ever been taught to believe. This was terrifying, yet key to my overall growth. I was plagued with fears of going to Hell for somehow rejecting Jesus and lacking faith and my reflections at this time in my life caused me a great deal of emotional discomfort. Then, one day, I finally realized that the faith that I was rejecting had never really been my own. I realized that myself, like so many others had been the victim of internalizing someone else’s beliefs. With more study and reflection, I have arrived at the place where I now realize that religious beliefs are developed through a projective process. So much of the fear I had attached to God was really misplaced fear of the authority figures of my childhood. My fear of Hell was eerily similar to my fear of my father’s belt in childhood. I also branched out in my reading and began to look at new theological models while also exploring the psychology of religion. Through this process, I looked at comparative literature and read holy texts from many different faith traditions outside of the Western Abrahamic faiths. I was particularly impressed by the writings of Alan Watts and the Chinese wisdom literature attributed to Lao Tzu. In those writings, there was no focus on Heaven or Hell. There was no emphasis on one decision dictating the rest of one’s eternity, but rather the focus was on living fully in the present moment. The goal was to act in harmony with one’s surroundings and in doing so one fall’s into the greater plan that Daoists call “the way.” Intriguingly enough, Jesus refers to himself as “the way, the truth, and the light.” I began to ask myself what this “way” was? Through this time, I continued to read and learn. I began to see parallels between various faiths and recognizing that there are some motifs that speak to the human spirit and are present in every faith tradition. As I allowed myself to consider the actual meanings of these different texts, I also saw parallels of human psychology within them. Up until this point in my journey I had spent all of my time collecting religious knowledge and dogma. I now realized that it was time to begin letting things go. This was a terrifying process. (Even now today it terrifies me from time to time.) The sureties that were promised in my former belief system slowly began to fade. A certain ambiguity became present in my life as the lense through which I had once understood my faith began to dissolve. I was suddenly very aware of the projections that were within me that I had placed upon my understanding of God. I became aware of the things others had taught me that I internalized without full consideration or thought and I let those pieces fall away. Over time, my faith moved from being fear driven and future oriented to having a better grounding in the present moment. For years, my fears of Hell kept me subservient to a faith that never truly was my own. In this pathological religious practice, the shame from my past was exacerbated by the religious notion that I had no righteousness causing me to constantly be striving to be “good enough,” whatever that is. No amount of attempted holiness alleviated this ache as I constantly looked toward the future to avoid the past and medicate the present. So many of my earlier years were wasted because I could not simply embrace what was right in front of me. These days, my faith is very different. I still see value in Christian principles, but I do not take them literally. I see value in the mythological references and in the literature of other faiths. Daoism and meditation are now a huge part of my spiritual practice along with active reflection and a focus on staying present in the moment. I don’t think that there is some place of eternal torment waiting for anyone. I see us all as beautiful creations that were created with purpose. I see evil as a missing of the mark, but a condition that ends with our death. My heaven does not necessarily have St. Peter hanging out at the gates. I honestly have no idea what happens after we die, but I trust. I trust that God, the Creator, the Way, and the Great Sustainer has our best interest at heart. So, I search daily for truth in the world around me. I look for ways to make the world around me a little better than I found it, and I know that I am part of plan greater than myself. Where I once needed to know all of the minute details, I now am comfortable being part of the plan even when I don’t know what that plan is. I am comfortable in the ambiguity that is inherently present in life and I am fine not having everything figured out. I have moved away from trying to find meaning in life and embraced the notion of creating meaning in life…to not only live, but to have the true experience of being alive. Yet, I never stop trying to answer the unanswerable questions that my spirituality compels me to propose and in doing so, I and others who have chosen this path have grown beyond what we once thought possible. We embrace the present. We accept what is and we move forward knowing that something larger than us is at work. Moving from doubt through faith and into knowing, we see the interconnectedness of everything and recognize that the God we have sought outside of us and anywhere but the present moment has been within us all the time from the very beginning of our existence. As Carl Jung once said when asked if he believed in God, I too respond: “No, I don’t believe…I know.” This state is both humbling and empowering and it can only be found by embracing what is in the present moment. Embrace the present and never cease to seek growth. If you do this, you may find yourself amazed at how the universe smiles upon you.-

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